Frej Wasastjerna


            Barney Harmon turned over in bed and stroked his wife's back. She shifted backward, into his lap, and sighed with contentment as he caressed her arm.

            His thoughts went back to that crucial evening in Cairo ten years ago.


            His cousin Mike Gilmore had suggested that they celebrate their silver anniversaries together in Cairo, just like they had spent their honeymoons together in Jackson Hole.

            When Barney and Elizabeth finally got to the Tutankhamon Hotel, he was tired and cross. Still, he brightened up when he saw Mike and Maria waiting in the hotel lobby.

            "Hi, Barney! Long time no see! How are things with you?" Mike boomed, getting up from his chair to clap Barney on both shoulders.

            "Fine. Sorry we're late," Barney replied, putting down his suitcases to shake Mike's hand and then Maria's.

            "Barney crashed our rented car on the way from the airport. Took us a couple of hours to get everything straightened out and come here by taxi," Elizabeth said. She didn't actually use the words "just like him". She didn't have to, her tone of voice said it all.

            "That's easy to do in traffic like here," Maria said.

            "It's the third car that Barney has totaled," Elizabeth said. Not that anybody had asked.


            Twenty minutes later Barney and Elizabeth had taken their luggage to their room and refreshed themselves a little. Mike knocked on their window and beckoned them out on the balcony the two rooms shared.

            On the balcony were two round tables, each with two chairs. On each table stood an opened bottle of white wine, still cold, and two wine glasses. On the left table, the one in front of Mike's and Maria's room, stood a third bottle, empty.

            Barney seated himself on Elizabeth's left, next to Maria.

            When all had sat down, Mike said, "Here we are at last! Barney, old pal, I believe you like white wine, was that right?"

            "Sure." Barney poured some wine into Elizabeth's glass and then his own. He lifted his glass and sipped. "Nice wine."

            "And a nice view," Maria said, indicating the western horizon, where the sky was paling from red to gray. Below the jagged urban skyline, the lights had come on, giving the raucous streets of Cairo a softer, almost magical touch. The din continued unabated, though.

            "Sure," Barney answered again, then went on, "I was reading a science fiction story about the Great Library in Alexandria."

            "Oh?" Mike said, leaning towards Barney. "What happened in the story?"

            "They tried to save the contents--you know it burned..."

            "You and your stories," Elizabeth said.

            That killed the conversation for a while. Then Maria resurrected it. "I've heard you write some science fiction yourself, don't you?"

            "Yes," Barney said.

            "Had anything published?"

            "A few of my stories have been published on the Internet. Some in Writer's Hood, a couple of horror items in Rosewort."

            "But nobody has paid him anything for them," Elizabeth said.

            "Even so, it's still something to have got published," Maria answered.

            "Honestly, it isn't all that difficult to get published in the Writer's Hood or in Rosewort," Barney said. "Still, I haven't given up on getting published elsewhere."

            Mike lifted his glass and said, "Now, guys, let's drink to our marriages. They've lasted twenty-five years--that means that together we've been married a century." Mike upended his glass, the others sipped from theirs.

            "Not bad nowadays," Maria said.

            "Is it really worth celebrating that in twenty-five years not one of us has been able to think up anything better?" There. Now he, Barney, had said out loud what he had been thinking for the last eight years--based on feelings that had been developing a lot longer.

            "Passh the bottle, honey," Mike said. Maria plunked down the bottle in front of him, then leaned towards Barney, almost touching him, and asked in a low voice, "What's that tower over there?"

            "That? That's some minaret--belongs to some mosque, I looked it up on the map but don't remember its name." Only now, with Maria so close to him, did Barney notice how trim and attractive she still was in her late forties. Quite unlike his own fat frump of a wife, though honestly his own looks wouldn't win any prizes either.

            "Who do you think will win the World Series this year?" Mike asked, articulating carefully.

            Oh no, not sports! Barney thought. Nobody else seemed interested either.

            "Look--a shooting star! Remember to wish for something!" Maria exclaimed, pointing toward a spot slightly above the horizon.

            Barney looked in that direction but didn't see anything except a few ordinary stars. Of course there could have been a shooting star. It might have vanished before he looked.

            What should he wish? Dare he...?

            He looked at Maria. She was looking right into his eyes, lips slightly parted. Well, maybe... after all, he wouldn't have to tell anybody what he wished...

            Mike hitched his chair to Elizabeth's side and asked, "Liz, do you like gardening?"

            "What?--eh, gardening. Sure..."

            She went on from there. Barney didn't bother listening. He knew fucking well Elizabeth liked gardening. After all, she had used him as slave labor for twenty-four years.

            Now she was talking about her two-pound cucumbers, without so much as mentioning who had built the greenhouse in which she raised them.

            Maria said to Barney, "I'll go prepare something for us to eat. Would you like to help?"

            "Sure," Barney answered and rose to follow Maria into her and Mike's room. Not that preparing a snack sounded all that interesting, but it sure beat listening to Elizabeth talking about her garden.

            Once they were inside, Maria looked briefly out towards the balcony and then took Barney's hand and guided him to a corner of the room where Elizabeth and Mike couldn't see them. Then she turned toward him and grasped his other hand.

            "Barney, I've always admired you," she said.

            Barney was flabbergasted. Where did that come from?

            Maria let go of his hands and put her arms around his neck instead, raising her face to his.

            So Barney kissed her. What else was there to do in such a situation? But soon he was embracing Maria ardently, and the kiss tuned more and more passionate.

            "Ha!" Elizabeth's voice sounded like an anti-tank gun. "I had thought that you, Barney, were at least faithful, but now I see that you aren't even that!"

            As soon as they got home, Elizabeth filed for a divorce.


            How fortunate that I agreed to help, Barney thought as he stroked Maria's arm once more. The nine years and eight months since he married Maria had been the best part of his life. For that matter, even Elizabeth and Mike were getting on well, according to what he had heard. They didn't live together, but they shared a garden and, so it was rumored, occasionally a bed.